European releases reveal the virtuosity of violinists Leonid Kogan and Oleg Kagan

June 18, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Kogan and Kagan are almost identical names, and Leonid Kogan and Oleg Kagan had a great deal -- superficially, at least -- in common. They were among the finest Russian violinists of their respective generations, both died prematurely (Kogan of a heart attack at the age of 58 in 1982 and Kagan of cancer at the age of 44 in 1990), and neither was as well-known in this country as he deserved to be.

Kogan and Kagan, however, are the subjects of extensive retrospectives from two enterprising European labels. Italy's Arlecchino has brought out 20 volumes of Kogan material, of live performances as well as studio recordings, from the Russian archives of Melodiya and Moscow Radio. And Munich's Live Classics now has 10 volumes of Kagan material, mostly of live performances from Western Europe.

Although Kogan was always in the shadow of the older and more famous David Oistrakh, he was a much better-known musician than Kagan, whose career in the West only began a few years before his fatal illness with the coming of perestroika. Kogan leaped to fame with his first-prize victory in the 1951 Brussels Competition, and he was acknowledged, if not by the general public, by other fiddler players as one of the greatest masters of his instrument.

Kogan was not, however, a popular figure among his Russian colleagues. There were rumors that he worked for the KGB, and no Russian musician -- not even his brother-in-law, the pianist Emil Gilels -- appeared comfortable in his presence.

But if there was a dark side to his personality, Kogan was able to use it in works that had a sardonic edge (such as Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto) or that had a death-haunted quality (such as Alban Berg's Violin Concerto). Kogan plays both of these pieces magnificently in Volume I of Arlecchino's Leonid Kogan Legacy (ARL 6). These are live performances with the U.S.S.R. Symphony from 1960 (the Shostakovich) and 1967 (the Berg). Kogan surpasses even Oistrakh in the Shostakovich, which has an evil edge in its second-movement Scherzo and final Burlesque that the sweet-natured Oistrakh simply wasn't capable of. Kogan also manages to capture the seraphic rapture of the Berg concerto, and he plays it with an intensity and focus that mark his performance as one of the greatest available.

Kogan was an amazing virtuoso -- his speed, precision and purity of intonation were second only to Heifetz -- and there is some incredible playing to be heard in Volume XI (ARL 35), a collection of 22 encore pieces (many of them Heifetz's own nearly impossible-to-play transcriptions).

The violinist plays the Heifetz transcription of Prokofiev's "March of the Three Oranges" with insouciant panache, flies through Sarasate's "Zapateado" with exuberant virtuosity and performs Castenuovo- Tedesco's uproariously funny "Figaro" transcription with wicked wit.

Don't miss the three Grieg sonatas in Volume X (ARL 34). The Sonata No. 2, which the violinist recorded with his daughter, Nina, in 1982 when he was already ill and not at his best, is good enough. But the Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3 are studio recordings from 1947 in which the violinist collaborates with the great pianist, Grigori Ginzburg. Ginzburg (1904-'61) was one of the most elegant pianists who ever lived and had an all-encompassing technique in the Lipatti-Michelangeli class. The Sonata No. 3 receives the best performance on records, even surpassing the famous Kreisler-Rachmaninoff version.

Oleg Kagan was a different sort of man than Kogan -- he was as beloved as Kogan was feared -- and it is reflected in open-hearted, lyrical performances that often resemble those of his teacher, David Oistrakh. Some of the best are with the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Despite the age difference -- Richter was 32 years Kagan's senior -- they were close friends who shared their similar interests in painting and literature for the last 20 years of Kagan's life. They remained chamber-music partners until Kagan was no longer able to perform.

XTC Their two discs of Mozart sonatas (LCL 122 and 123) -- taken from live performances in Moscow in 1975 -- are wonderful. These are gracious, spontaneous readings that capture Mozart's sentiment and splendor in the Sonata in B-flat (K. 454), as well as his tragic intensity in the E minor Sonata, to perfection.

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